HALIFAX—He walks in homes through unlocked doors, sneaks into women’s bedrooms and quietly watches them sleep until they wake before fleeing out the same open entryway he used to get in.
Dubbed the ‘Sleepwatcher’ by edgy Halifax residents, the elusive predator has been carrying out his unusual, apparently random crimes for two years and yielding little information about his identity.
Halifax police believe they are dealing with one person and have released four artist sketches of a man who has confounded residents and officers since 2008.
The suspect — if it is one person — has adhered to a similar method in the roughly 20 cases police have linked to him in a concentrated area of the city’s south end. In the early hours of the morning, the suspect enters a young woman’s room and stands over her, saying nothing and not touching her before leaving soon after she awakes.
But in one of the most recent incidents, the culprit changed his practices to include what police would only describe as the sexual touching of two young women asleep in their apartment.
This change has led criminal experts and police to warn that while his behaviour seemed harmless initially, it is escalating and will likely continue to do so.
“He’s moving up, he’s escalating, so I’d really watch him,” Elliott Leyton, a social anthropologist and author of a book on serial killers called Hunting Humans, said in a telephone interview from St. John’s, N.L.
“The people I end up dealing with often start in this small way.”
Leyton drew parallels to the notorious case of Russell Williams, the disgraced former commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton who was sentenced last week to life in prison for two murders, assaults and a string of break and enters.
Williams’s criminal behaviour ramped up from the theft of women’s and girls underwear from their homes to the brutal tortures and murders of two young women in the Ontario community.
Police believe the Halifax sleepwatcher began his crimes in the fall of 2008, when people reported four similar-sounding cases of someone watching them sleep before leaving. The incursions stopped for several months and then began again in the spring of 2009, only to cease again in the summer and resume in the fall.
Const. Brian Palmeter of Halifax police said no one reported anything taken and the first case of touching appeared to be an attempt by the suspect to wake up the woman.
But this September, three young women reported that a man came into their home, entered each of their bedrooms, left after they awoke and touched two of them.
One of the victims said in a media report that her roommate’s shorts and underwear were cut with scissors in the encounter. Police wouldn’t comment on the allegation.
“It concerns us because this type of behaviour has the ability to escalate,” Palmeter said, adding that the culprit appears to like the moment when the women wake up.
“We are urging citizens in general, but specifically university aged women, to be really vigilant and lock their doors.”
Police have described the suspect as a white male, about 5-10, in his early 20s, with short dark hair and a medium build.
They questioned two people shortly after one incident, but determined they had nothing to do with their investigation. Palmeter said it’s proving difficult to catch the culprit because victims are groggy and only get a momentary glimpse of him before he leaves.
The occurrences are sporadic as well, and some people haven’t called 911 immediately after the incident.
Don Clairmont, director of Dalhousie University’s Atlantic Institute of Criminology in Halifax, said it’s not uncommon to see people progress from observing their prey to attacking them.
“There have been a lot of cases of random stalking of women that have escalated from where the person is looking in the window and gets closer and then is raping or assaulting them,” he said, citing the Williams case as an example of that progression.
“I think once you start doing what this guy (in Halifax) is doing, we’ve all got to watch out because I would assume the enhancement of those acts is kind of predictable.”
Experts can’t say precisely what might be motivating the culprit, but suggest he derives a fetishistic sexual pleasure from the encounters.
Leyton said the acts can be preceded by years, even decades, of fantasizing about them. At first, they may lack confidence that they can pull it off without getting caught.
When they repeatedly succeed, Leyton said the crime becomes less exciting and the predator feels the need to escalate their behaviour.
“With success comes confidence, but with multiple repetition the act becomes less exciting so they add a little here and a little there to the fantasies and then to the acts,” he said.
“You can assume that he’s very sexually aroused while this is happening, that he’s pushing the boundary of what he thinks he can do.”